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This is profoundly sad. This is absolutely terrifying. Wesley Crusher is in your TV.
It’s 1990s in the 2020s. Remember dating via VHS? Me neither. It’s for sad people, like David.
“Cary Grant, I swell up just thinking of him,” says Harvey Firestein… I mean… Mum. David and Harvey Firestein share a tender moment watching His Girl Friday.
Harvey Firestein has dementia. David’s life is lonely. Enter Wesley Crusher… I mean Andy… the Rent-A-Pal. David hides the alcohol bottle from him, but he is just a guy in a videotape.
There’s some sinister talk of spanking from Wesley. Just enough overlap and pausing and jarring to make you question if the whole exchange is sinister or not.
David gets a video dating match, pays for it despite being told she is no longer available, and discovers Lisa is his dream. Devastating. Michael points out he doesn’t even have a real bed. Rip my heart out.
We continue walking the tightrope of pathetic that could veer into incel-dom.
“Yes, a home with mother. In Albany too,” says Cary Grant from the TV. Harvey Firestein finishes a crossword like it’s a maze puzzle. “They don’t even make them hard anymore!”
We learn more about Wesley and his worst date THE LYING HAG! Chaperone Wesley Crusher and his knitted vest outta here. Incel alarms are blaring. A toast to friendship! A sad montage of man to VHS bonding.
We hear about Pamela. Wesley describes sexing Pamela. David masturbates. It’s so uncomfortable. Wesley says David’s name. It’s scary as fuck. Harvey Firestein screams when she catches David, calling him by his father's name.
“This is how you repay your wife, by self polluting!” She screeches.
Wesley laughs over David yelling at his mother. He is not his mother’s husband, he is her son. Wesley continues to laugh maniacally. David reveals his father killed himself. Harvey Firestein, crying, reveals she soiled herself.
Debbie from the video shop phones. Lisa is available again. They go roller skating. He brings a rose. It’s awkward. It’s sweet. He uses Wesley’s jokes, attributing them to a friend. Things go well.
Michael points out she repeats the same phrases as Wesley. They’re much less sinister.
We squirm on the couch as David tells a very unreceptive Wesley about his great date. They have a tiff. David is in an abusive friendship with a VHS.
Harvey Firestein has absconded. Lisa to the rescue. The woman is a saint.
“Don’t take Saint Lisa into your den of misery, David,” says Michael.
There’s nothing less romantic than listening to your dead dad’s jazz piano after putting Harvey Firestein to bed together.
“Go to her house,” says Michael. “Oh no, he’s going to sit on the remote and the retelling of the sex stuff with Pamela will come on.”
He does sit on the remote, and somehow it’s worse. Wesley just glares. Glowers. David and Saint Lisa are smooching. David comes in his knickers. Wesley laughs. David gets weird and aggressive. Saint Lisa leaves. Poor Saint Lisa. Men are fucked. VHSs are fucked.
I want to know who hurt Saint Lisa because she then calls and apologises TO HIM.
DAVID HAS A PHOTO OF HIM AND WESLEY.
THERE IS NO TAPE. Wait. Yes, there is. Harvey Firestein has chopped it up. David gives her a wallop. It’s confronting. I’m sad.
He loses his shit at Debbie at the video dating place. He gets what he wants; the completion of his descent into madness.
Now this is my kind of movie; profundity in the form of sadness, a mediation on degenerative diseases, and the aesthetics of the 1990s.
I feel like subconsciously or unconsciously (screw it, lets just add in all the possibilities and add in consciously) the vest Wil Wheaton is wearing as Andy is vaguely reminiscent of his Wesley Crusher, Boy Genius garb.
I’m going to say something wild: this movie, at different moments and capacities, reminded me of Psycho, Persona and Punch-Drunk Love. If that sounds like too many masterpieces for this Spooky VHS tape psychological horror movie to be compared to, it also reminded me of a lot of really schlocky movies I’ve seen too.
From the moment David gets the video, the scenes in which he is watching the video start to feel explicitly like the best scene in Psycho. Specifically the scene where Norman talks to Marion in the room with all the taxidermized animals. You start to understand the depth of his pain; by trying to do the right thing in terms of his relationship with his mother, he creates a block between him and the rest of the world.
The Persona comparison is much less overt and probably not intentional but there were several times throughout the film that Michelle and I questioned David’s identity; at what point has he stopped responding to the video and at what point has he taken on the attributes of his hermetically, encapsulated compatriot. There is jealousy (that becomes realised), assurances (that are broken) and a sense of dual consignment occurring too (David’s mother depends on him, David depends on Andy).
The comparison with Punch-Drunk Love is one of plot structure, we see a lonely man struggling to connect with people (in the case of this movie, through video dating, in the other, phone sex conversations), eventually meets someone and then through their crummy circumstances the relationship becomes sadly complicated. It ends very differently in both, which is where the schlock references come in.
However, Rent-A-Pal is not shlock, even if you considered it to be schlock, it is elevated schlock. The sound design and production is so high-quality as to give the schlock argument an uphill battle. The performances are great and there is just enough character study going on, particularly in the conversations about David’s dad and family history, to really take this to another level. The movie is good, though (in fear of becoming a broken record) I don’t think it particularly sticks the landing.
I’ve got to admit that Michelle stole all my best quotes about the movie above but the one that I want to reiterate is that this picture is just profoundly sad. It’s even sadder when you realise that similar videos existed for the lonely and unattached individuals of the 90s. Take for instance, the Instant Adoring Boyfriend. A not particularly attractive British man spews empty compliments and platitudes your way for 30 mins.
That same company made videos called the Amazing Instant Aquarium and the Fantastic Instant Fireplace and I’m pretty sure you know exactly what you’d expect from them. They’re funny, as are snippets of actual video dating profiles from the past but, again, deeply sad.
The torrent of exercise/therapy videos for seniors, videos for Christian parents afraid of Satan’s influence on their teens, or self-hypnosis instructional videos tell you this as well. When people have exhausted their connections and they turn to Video Charlatans to cure them of their pain, emotional or physical, it is really sad indeed.
The real horror is human helplessness and loneliness.